Rereading the Work of Shirley Jackson

I have a lot of literary kindred spirits, most of them women. They are authors who are not necessarily similar to me in writing style or subject matter, but for whom I feel a kind of emotional connection. These are women writers whom I wish I could have over for coffee, to pick their brains, or at least hear their stories firsthand. They are my friends, even though we are separated by layers of time and space. Shirley Jackson, the horror writer best known for her short story “The Lottery” and the novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is one of these friends for me. Regarded as merely “pop” genre fiction during her time, Jackson’s work is beginning to be regarded for its literary value and its feminist themes – a new perspective that, in my opinion, is long overdue.

I had read “The Lottery” in school, but my first real introduction to Jackson was reading her posthumously published collection of stories and essays, Let Me Tell You. In that work, the reader has the singular delight of getting to know Jackson the writer and housewife, a woman just as strange and unsettling as the characters in her books. In Let Me Tell You, she writes about her collection of occult objects, the poltergeist in her kitchen, and the trials and tribulations of child-rearing: the mundanity of everyday life in New England seamlessly mixing with the paranormal and the inexplicable.

After the success of Let Me Tell You and the publication of a few new biographies, Jackson’s life and work has recently been reexamined. The New Yorker wrote last year: “Jackson’s adult life was essentially a rebellion…She became a writer; she grew fat; she married a Jewish intellectual, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and ran a bohemian household in which she dyed the mashed potatoes green when she felt like it.” It was through her own voice, however, that I befriended an eccentric woman whose twisted imagination spoke to my own love for creepy things.

Jackson’s works were complex, combining horror and humor with themes of ostracism and repression. Her novels often take place inside large estates on the outskirts of towns, within dysfunctional families, and, in many ways, inside the minds of unstable, unhappy women. Much has been made of the reflection of Jackson’s own marital misery in her haunted female characters and pompous, domineering male characters, yet her books are hardly domestic allegories. They also express the claustrophobia and paranoia of small communities (We Have Always Lived in the Castle), or the danger of blindly trusting authority (The Sundial). In The Haunting of Hill House, she perfected what is now a key tenet of horror writing: the notion that sometimes, the thing you should fear the most is yourself.

Although the renewed interest in Jackson’s life has led to a reconsideration of her work, I hope that we can celebrate the delicious weirdness of her stories without trying too hard to understand her. Though I think of her as a kindred spirit, I find myself resisting the urge to find Jackson as the person underneath her devious characters. That’s just not the mystery she would have wanted us to solve.

-Hannah Engler

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